While these programs help bring much needed resources to communities, it is important to acknowledge Coca-Cola’s overall role when it comes to water in the developing world. It is hardly controversial to suggest that the Coca-Cola company does not exhibit serious concern for the environment and water supplies, as they use vast amount of water in their manufacturing and bottle even more that they export and sell. Specifically, the company has done considerable damage in India where their manufacturing plants have severely depleted aquifers and polluted water supplies that locals depend on to farm and drink. These areas faced severe drought and in many cases did not have the resources to dig deeper wells to extract more water. In 2003, the BBC exposed the company’s sale of carcinogenic toxic sludge to local farmers. Because of the high levels of pesticides found in the products produced in that region, some farmers actually chose to spray their fields with Coca-Cola rather than pesticides. The company was forced to close several of their plants by the Indian government, after inflicting so much damage.
Although Coca-Cola has made efforts to restore certain aquifers and to set up Ekocenters where citizens can access safe drinking water, to suggest that the company is neutralizing their “water footprint” would be to overlook the simple fact that it takes over two liters of water to produce one liter of Coke by the company’s own calculations. The entire idea of “water neutrality” ignores the reality that water depletion has primarily local impacts, and so helping one community in Africa access safe drinking water does nothing for another in India.
In “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis lays out the many problems resulting from water shortages, and clearly states that clean water is becoming more scarce and being privatized, despite the fact that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.”
Of course the Coca-Cola Company is not demanding money from those who come to their kiosks in the developing world, but it does make money from bottling water, even in places such as California, which is experiencing severe drought. Of course not all the water in Dasani bottles comes from water-impoverished areas – it is nothing more than treated tap water. Is the purified water available to those in villages with Ekocenter kiosks commoditized? Even though it is free to people, in order to access it they must still go to a private company which then publicizes its good deeds in the developing world in order to ameliorate its image.
The question is not whether access to healthcare, internet, and safe water is good for communities the Coca-Cola brings these things to, or if the women operating the kiosks that distribute these things are better off with a job. That much is clear; the question is how many grains of salt to take when the Coca-Cola company says they are “standing up for the little guy,” so to speak, and assessing their overall role in providing or denying the world water. Pope Francis has denounced the apathetic responses by world leaders as well as general population when it comes to environmental concerns, and reaffirmed Catholic Social teaching, which says that the economy should serve the people, and not the other way around.